The Trouble with High Expectations of New Volunteers

expectations of new volunteers

What are your expectations of new volunteers? Over the past month, I’ve had two separate clients express frustration with how hard it is to find volunteers who are already trained.

You read that correctly.

They are looking for volunteers who can walk right in and start helping with the absolute minimum of training by the volunteer leader.

I get it. We are all super busy, and many leaders of volunteers do that role in addition to other work. It would be so much easier if we could recruit volunteers who already have the skills and experience necessary so that we can put our time and energy into other aspects of the program. Sure, that may work if the role is a simple, menial one like stuffing envelopes. Not otherwise.

If your expectations of new volunteers are too high, you’re setting the volunteer and yourself up for failure. And you won’t save any time in the long run.

Training a volunteer does more than just teach them how to do things.

The time spent with them starts building the relationship and rapport that will make a new volunteer feel welcome and part of the team. Even if a volunteer comes in knowing how to do the role, by neglecting this step, you leave them feeling a bit like an outsider. It will take longer for them to get to know you, the organization’s culture and the small differences in how you do things vs how their previous organization did.

All of which prevents them from really feeling like part of the organization. Leading to less loyalty. Leading to higher turnover. Leading to you spending more time recruiting.

Also, when your expectations of new volunteers are too high, recruitment takes a lot longer.

Let’s face it, many people volunteer to gain or improve skills. If you only take those who already have those skills, you shrink your potential volunteer pool. Take an organization who’s looking for a volunteer graphic designer. Many of the people who are really good at it already do it as their day-to-day job. Doing it on the weekends or in the evenings probably isn’t too appealing. You may find someone who’s retired from the role, or who is a very good amateur, but that’s a small number compared with those who might want to learn the skill or improve it.

And what amazing volunteer might you be missing out on because you set your sights too high?

If you take the time to train someone in a skill that they value, they are more likely to develop an appreciation and loyalty for you and the organization. I know, I know. You’ve probably trained a lot of volunteers only to see them disappear after a month. But what about the ones that didn’t? Personally, I know several people who are still with the organization that trained them years later. Some of them are now actually staff members there! If someone hadn’t taken the time to train and nurture them, it is unlikely that they would have had that loyalty. Think about the long-term volunteers in your program. How many of them walked in already knowing everything?

But what about the ones that do disappear?

There are a lot of them. I’m not pretending otherwise. And it’s frustrating to spend the time training someone who isn’t going to stick around. They’re not a complete lost cause, though, for two reasons. The first is that, even if they stuck around longer, it’s unlikely that they would ever have become a superstar, long-term volunteer. They may just be the type of person who values change and new experiences. They’ve seen what you have to offer them; now they want to see what another organization offers. It’s not that they’re “shopping around”; just that they get bored with one thing more quickly than others. This habit may be something you can screen for during recruitment.

The second reason is that if the experience that they had while they were with you was enjoyable, if they value the learning they received (maybe they even got a new job out of it!), they will leave with a good impression of the organization and may be willing to share that impression with other people. Even past volunteers make excellent ambassadors!

The desire to have new volunteers come in already trained is understandable, but counter-productive.

Yes, it’s hard to find the time to train everyone. Yes, many volunteers you train will not stick around. But having high expectations of new volunteers in terms of knowledge and skills won’t save you time in the long run. Quite the opposite. Being willing to take on volunteers who don’t have the skills you are looking for widens the pool of talent you can draw from. Training them helps build strong relationships, and strong relationships increase loyalty. All of which saves more time than you would spend in training.

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